“Judge Dredd” was a Sylvester Stallone movie from 1995, based on a comic book storyline, in which the justice system of the future has consolidated the police, the prosecutors, and judges into one entity. These “Judges” enforce the laws all by themselves. They make the arrest for whatever criminal act has occurred, decide on the punishment, and deliver the sentence immediately. This is fantasy, of course, but thinking about the concept raises a question. Could something like this be used to correct problems in our current justice system?
Because let’s face it, the justice system in the United States and other countries has its flaws. One of the biggest of those is how much time elapses between when a person commits a crime and when they are finally punished. If someone breaks into a house and steals a safe, for example, they might be arrested a short time after the crime took place. Then they will go to court for an initial arraignment, and be given another court date a few months down the road. A trial might take place sometime within a year, and take anywhere from a week to a month. The person who committed the burglary might be convicted of that, or of some lesser included offense. Then, they’ll be sentenced at that point, or a week to a month later depending on what reports the court needs before passing sentence. So now, well more than a year later, the person who committed the criminal act will get whatever punishment the court passes.
That’s if they get caught, if they get found guilty, and if they get found guilty of the crime they were arrested for and not some lesser crime. What incentive is there to NOT commit crimes under this system? A punishment that might, maybe, happen a year to two years down the road doesn’t really deter someone who has needs to meet right now. The threat of punishment has to outweigh the benefits gained from committing a crime. And a “maybe” punishment that far removed from the crime does not weigh on a person’s mind very heavily.
Enter the “Judge Dredd” scenario. If a person who is about to commit a crime knows that if they are caught, they will be punished immediately, that could provide good incentive not to commit the crime in the first place. If I steal from my neighbor, the Judge is going to make me give my neighbor whatever I own to pay him back. If I get caught driving drunk, the Judge is going to seize my car right then. If I kill someone, well, the answer to that one depends on what sentences were available to the Judge.
So what are benefits and drawbacks to this kind of law enforcement? What are the pros and cons?
1) Immediate punishment equals deterrence. I do not want to rob my neighbor if I’ll lose my house to pay him back. I do not want to drive drunk if on my third arrest my car will be destroyed in front of my eyes (which is a scene from the movie). Criminals would not have to wonder any longer IF they would be punished. They would know with certainty that the person arresting them had the authority to pass sentence and enforce punishment.
2) If the person making the arrest passes the sentence, there is no “middle men” to confuse the issue. By middle men, I mean lawyers, juries, and so on. Under our current system, if a police officer catches someone in the act of robbing a store, they arrest them. The police officer finishes their paperwork, and forwards it to the District Attorney’s office for prosecution. Lawyers step in on both sides, defense and prosecution, and pass motions that affect how evidence is used in court, and even what evidence can be introduced. By the time the case comes to trial, doubt has been cast both by the lawyers and by the time that has elapsed.
If the arresting police officer could pass judgment based on what they saw themselves, there would be no one to change the facts, to twist them to say something different. The arrested person had a gun in their hand demanding money. The police officer makes the arrest, decides the robber is guilty, and sentences the robber to five years in prison, drives the robber to prison right then to start serving his sentence.
3) Cost savings. The savings to the justice system would be immense due to the reduction in staff needed. Instead of paying for judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, court officers, and so forth, there would be the Judges, and their support staff. And the prison system staff, of course.
1) Mistakes in judgment. The current justice system is set up as a means of checks and balances. No man is perfect, so to rely on one man’s judgment in any case makes people nervous. The Judges would need to be able to articulate they were completely certain of what they saw or knew before passing judgment if such a system were to work.
2) Abuse of power. To put this much authority in the hands of one person should certainly make people nervous. Without a separate judge, or a jury hearing the facts of the case, the Judge is the only person who would be able to say what happened. Judges would need to be carefully screened before being appointed, and then continuously afterward. And even then, there would have to be some kind of review system in place to check on the Judges’ sentencing practices.
Is such a system possible? I think, realistically, yes. This is not a new idea, for all that it’s dressed up as Science Fiction in “Judge Dredd.” Let’s remember, in the late 1800s in America’s western territories, men were appointed as law enforcement agents for wide areas of frontier where no other law existed. The lawmen of those days were often called upon to be judge, jury, and executioner all at once out of sheer necessity. Were mistakes made under that system? Of course there were. But it was what was necessary at the time and for the most part, the system worked.
Am I advocating we scrap our entire justice system and move to something similar to “Judge Dredd?” No. Our society would never survive such a drastic change all at once. But on a smaller scale, with adequate protections in place, it might be time to experiment with something similar. To reduce the detrimental period of waiting between arrest and conviction, if nothing else. And to make our legal system a deterrent to crimes once again.